Hundreds are expected to descend on the Oxford Union today in response to the society’s decision to invite Trump’s former chief-strategist Steve Bannon to speak this afternoon.
Union president Stephen Horvath told committee members that if members feel Bannon is “inadequately challenged” at today’s event, he will resign from his position.
A number of groups, including the Student Union’s Women’s and LGBTQ+ Campaign groups, its Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality, the Oxford Labour Club, and the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign, have called for students and locals to protest Bannon’s speakership.
The protest, called ‘Oxford Students Oppose Steve Bannon’, criticises the Union for “repeatedly hosted far-right speakers, including Tommy Robinson and Marine Le Pen.”
The protest’s event description on Facebook reads: “Bannon’s talk is members-only and was not announced until just days before, giving Oxford students no opportunity to voice our strong opposition to a man who’s helped orchestrate the current rise of fascism.”
The event’s announcement two days ago has also instigated considerable tension within the Union’s Standing Committee – its governing body – with Union Secretary and presidential candidate Nick Brown proposing an emergency motion to cancel the event.
The motion narrowly failed, with seven votes in opposition and six votes in favour.
In the meeting, a number of committee members criticised both Bannon’s invitation and the Union President’s decision to reveal the invitation to the committee only 48 hours before the event.
Brown called Horvath’s decision to delay the event’s announcement a “clear attempt to seek to prevent protest” after claiming that “hosting this event would be, let’s be clear, hosting a white nationalist”.
Standing Committee member Anisha Faruk told the committee that Bannon’s invitation was to the detriment of Union’s identity as “a bastion of free speech”, saying that “amplifying the speech of some voices hurts the voice of others.”
Union Treasurer-elect Amy Gregg, who seconded Brown’s motion, called the manner in which Horvath disclosed the invitation to the committee as “highly irresponsible, highly inappropriate, and highly unfair”. She lamented the fact that the committee was unable to make a cost/benefit analysis prior to inviting Bannon. She abstained in the vote itself.
Horvath defended his decision to delay the announcement, telling the committee members at the meeting that he wished to minimise “public disruption”, citing the widespread reaction to the Union hosting Marine Le Pen in 2015.
He also insisted that recalling Bannon’s invitation would be “a considerable cost to consider”, and that Committee members were made aware that a “controversial American speaker” had been invited to speak last week.
Committee members also demanded that proper “infrastructure” be put in place at today’s event so that Bannon is adequately challenged, citing the “enormous risk that [Bannon] could go unquestioned”.
Horvath maintained his confidence in the ability of Union members to challenge Bannon.
According to the Union Bursar, a number of students have denounced their membership following the announcement of the event.
Others, including ex-Union President in Trinity Term 1967 Stephen Marks, passionately advocated against the event, saying that it will give controversial speakers such as Bannon a “veneer of credibility”.
Marks, also a Labour Councillor, told the committee that it ought to be ashamed of itself, calling Bannon’s invitation “a gob in the face of the people of this city who have expressed concerns”.
Speaking on behalf of some of his colleagues in Oxford’s Labour Council, he told the Union committee: “We are all amazed and frankly disgusted that the Union has repeated [its] offence of inviting a neo-Nazi.”
Horvath told Cherwell: “I am pleased that the Standing Committee have supported the principle of open dialogue and political neutrality. As was raised in the meeting, we have a tradition of hosting controversial speakers – whether they are politicians of the far-right or of the far-left, or those such as Colonel Gaddafi and Gerry Adams (who were engaged in violent actions against British citizens at the time of their invitations).
“These invitations were defended as part of the educational purpose of the Union, in enabling people to listen to and then critically question opposing views.
“The Secretary, Nick Brown, brought justifications for why he had been honoured to invite Senator Manny Pacquiao – who has said gay people are worse than animals – but believed we should disinvite Steve Bannon on the grounds that he would trigger people. There was a lively debate on the value of our events and the discussion they facilitate.
“Although it is too long to summarise those arguments here, I am sure that members will enjoy reading the draft minutes when the Secretary produces them.
“In addition to the issue of free speech, we also discussed the role the Standing Committee should play in such invitations in the future. There were constructive suggestions from the Treasurer-Elect Amy Gregg and the Librarian Genevieve Athis on this issue, and I look forward to a debate on a motion to change the Rules on this matter.”
Steve Bannon will speak at the Union from 4pm this afternoon.